The lawyer for the only surviving suspected gunman of the Mumbai attacks believes defending his Pakistani client in an Indian court poses a “nearly impossible” challenge.
“It’s an uphill task,” said Abbas Kazmi, who maintains that his client, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, may have been brainwashed into carrying out the atrocity.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult case from the defence point of view because, as we all know, there is overwhelming evidence and any number of witnesses,” Kazmi, 54, told AFP.
“It will be nearly impossible for a defence lawyer,” he added.
Kasab is being tried on charges that he was one of 10 gunmen who stormed India’s financial and entertainment capital last November, killing 166 people and injuring more than 300 others.
Amid continued outrage at the attacks, many people here, including some lawyers, believe Kasab should not be given a trial but Kazmi said the rule of law must be upheld.
“To save the honour of the nation, to prove to the world that we are a civilised, democratic set-up, we want to give a fair trial, even to a so-called terrorist,” he said.
A number of lawyers who said they would represent Kasab had their homes attacked by Hindu radicals. Kazmi’s acceptance of the brief has also led to protests from his fellow Shia Muslims in recent days.
He shrugged off any concerns for his safety but has still been given armed bodyguards and round-the-clock police protection as a precautionary measure. His three, college-age children also have security when they leave home.
Since proceedings began earlier this month, Kazmi has secured an inquiry into whether Kasab was an adult at the time of the offence and won more time to prepare his case.
The court has ordered dental tests and X-rays to determine Kasab’s age. If, as he claims, he was under 17, and not 21, jurisdiction could pass to the juvenile court, where the maximum sentence is three years in jail.
At present, Kasab faces a possible death sentence if convicted.
Kazmi indicated he would oppose hanging if Kasab is found guilty, as India’s Supreme Court has deemed that capital punishment should only be used in the “rarest of rare” cases.
“I’m preparing my defence to prove that no way it will fall into rarest of rare cases,” he said.
“We have to see what was the reason that led to this brutal killing, (the defendant’s) age and understanding of the matter: whether a person carrying out this act was in a proper position to understand his actions.”
With the 10 gunmen alleged to have been trained, equipped and financed by the banned, Pakistan-based organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the methods of Islamist extremists will come under close scrutiny.
Public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam has already alleged that the gunmen were the products of an institutionalised “terrorist culture” rampant in Pakistan.
“Religious fanaticism and terrorism is all about some old, wicked person brainwashing youngsters,” said Kazmi. “Teenagers fall prey to these things,” are filled with hatred and misled, he added.
Like many defence lawyers, Kazmi complained of having fewer resources at his disposal than the prosecution.
“The prosecution started their preparations on November 26” (the first night of the attacks) and have had help compiling the technical evidence from the likes of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and forensic experts, he said.
In contrast, Kazmi, who represented defendants in the 1993 Mumbai bombings case, was only appointed on April 16 and has just one other lawyer to help him.
Kazmi’s state-appointed predecessor, who herself had only been in the job for just weeks, was dismissed the previous day over a potential conflict of interest.
He has until May 2 to digest the 11,000-page charge sheet and prepare a defence.
Despite the punishing workload, Kazmi said he will still work on up to 30 other cases out of financial necessity, dividing his time between courts and his tiny, one-room office in central Mumbai.
He has yet to learn his fee for representing Kasab, although state legal aid lawyers reportedly earn as little as 900 rupees (18 dollars) for an entire case, irrespective of its length.
The odds are stacked against him but he said he is ready for the challenge.
“I have seen in criminal trials that every step the prosecution takes, a door opens, so I’m waiting for that opportunity,” he said.